Convinced that a comprehensive and integral international convention to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities will make a significant contribution to redressing the profound social disadvantage of persons with disabilities and promote their participation in the civil, political, economic, social and cultural spheres with equal opportunities, in both developing and developed countries...”

Preamble to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Canada, March 11, 2010

The province of Ontario promotes itself as one of the first jurisdictions in the world to pass specific legislation establishing goals and timeframes for accessibility. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province with almost 43 percent of the country’s population and with the largest GDP in Canada, has set the goal of making the province accessible by the year 2025. The province estimates that currently one in seven people (1.85 million residents) have a disability, with that number to increase by 2036 to one in five residents of the province having a disability as the population ages.

The method for achieving accessibility is through amendments made to the Ontario Building Code and passage of an accessibility law, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The AODA consists of specific regulations governing accessible customer service, accessible information and communications, employment, transportation and the built environment.

The AODA affects all businesses with at least one employee in Ontario and can have an extra-territorial effect on a company’s non-Canadian operations.

The legislation sets out varying timeframes and requirements depending on the number of employees that an organization employs in the province. In a nutshell, the legislation includes the following basic requirements. An organization that deals with the public needs to train all of its employees and other individuals who provide goods and services to the public on how to provide accessible customer service. An accessible customer service plan must be prepared and made available to the public. A multi-year accessibility plan needs to be developed to outline the company’s strategy for preventing and removing barriers for those with accessibility limitations and the plan needs to be posted on a company’s website. New websites and significantly refreshed websites will need to be compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). The WCAG guidelines are international standards on how to make web content accessible to those with low vision, deafness, hearing loss, blindness, learning disabilities, photosensitivity, limited movement and other barriers to full access. For example, alternate text is required for images and websites need to be navigable exclusively through a keyboard. When designing off-street parking, service counters and waiting areas, accessible parking must be provided and countertops and waiting areas must accommodate those using mobility aids such as scooters, walkers, canes and wheelchairs.

What does this mean for an employer in Ontario? During recruiting, the public needs to be notified that accommodations for job applicants with disabilities will be available. Employees must be provided with appropriate communication supports where necessary and individual accommodation plans must be prepared for employees with disabilities. A return-to-work process for employees off work due to disability who require accommodation must be established. Performance management and career development need to take accessibility needs of employees with disabilities into account.

Because the AODA’s focus is on consumers and employees located in the province of Ontario, the law has the potential to affect employees who are not located within the province or even within Canada, provided an organization has at least one employee in the province. The government is taking the position that where customer service is being provided to an Ontario consumer, for example, from a call center located outside of Canada, or where a consumer in Ontario needs to phone a foreign location to discuss an online order, the AODA governs the service provider’s conduct. Some organizations have trained foreign call center staff who service the province of Ontario.

Where an organization has a global website, which does not specifically target consumers in Ontario, the AODA would not govern. However, where an organization has a specific web page for Ontario consumers or a significant connection with the province of Ontario, the AODA will require the web pages to be WCAG 2.0 compliant, as long as the organization in Ontario has control over the appearance, functionality and content of the website. As such, the AODA may reach far beyond the boundaries of the province of Ontario.

The neighbouring province of Manitoba also recently passed similar legislation, the Accessibility for Manitobans Act. This legislation will also develop accessibility standards with respect to customer service, information and communications, transportation, employment and the built environment. The legislation has identified barrier-free customer service as the first priority.

Organizations providing goods and services to Canadians and organizations employing employees in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario need to be mindful of these new accessibility requirements.